Counties start summer with clean sweep

The new season: Much-criticised First Class Forum is quietly laid to rest - and the foreign legion are the next target
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The best thing that could happen to English cricket is winning the Ashes. The next best thing is a complete restructuring of the professional game, which might allow the best thing to take place.

The best thing that could happen to English cricket is winning the Ashes. The next best thing is a complete restructuring of the professional game, which might allow the best thing to take place.

At last, progress is at hand. No, not the Ashes, they will have to wait a little while, but the other business. In a move so revolutionary that the wheel might have been reinvented, the 18 first-class counties have conceded virtually all their power on the eve of the 2005 County Championship, which begins on Wednesday.

By the end of May, the First Class Forum, which has constantly (and correctly) been accused of wielding power for self-interest that stood in the way of essential reform, will be no more. Gone too - and grateful for it - will be the Recreational Forum, as well as much of the unwieldy committee structure within the England and Wales Cricket Board that has made decision-making so tortuous.

The dramatic reform is not yet official, but within a few weeks English cricket - the whole lot of it, from the playground to the Test arena, as the ECB like to say - will be run by a 12-person board. They will rule on all policy and direction. The jury will remain out, naturally, not least because so many of the dozen will have a background in county, rather than international, cricket.

The ultimate aim is to get more people playing and watching cricket at all levels, and to create an England team who will bestride the world. Who knows, it may prove such a panacea that the May revolution off the field will be followed by the reclamation of the Ashes in September. Well, actually, you may know.

In another improbable move, which begins to suggest that they realised it was time to purge themselves of past sins, the counties have also agreed to a series of performance targets. These will mean the reduction of their automatic annual fee payment from the ECB of £1.3m each - the sum that keeps every single one of them in business - to £1m. The remainder, a total of £5.4m, will be put into a pot and distributed as incentive payments for such things as employing players qualified to play for England and having players who average more than 45 with the bat and take 40 wickets with the ball.

Nor is this all. In future, there will be a national development squad of 25 players, including the eight to 12 who are centrally contracted. Their careers will largely be under the direction of the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, who grows more omnipotent by the day.

These revelations of change, to be formally announced and accompanied by other sweeping amendments next week, have not come a moment too soon. With England having been so successful in Test series in the past 12 months, the game is hardly in steep decline. But it is to be hoped that a 12-person board would not have made the crass error of starting the Ashes series as late as 21 July and ending it (if England really are any good) on 12 September. This schedule is entirely because of the need to satisfy television. It is a reason, but there can be no excuse for such a long build-up.

Much of the game's focus until then will be on the counties. They remain a cause for concern. Last year's Championship would have been tailor-made for a town called Dullsville, and despite the blousy attractions of Twenty20, it will never go far in helping to establish a perennially successful England. At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, Twenty20 is a bit of a slapper you might have a spot of saucy fun with, but the Championship is the woman you would marry.

It provokes both depression and incredulity that between them the counties will employ more than 70 players who are not qualified by nationality or residence to play for England. The sadder fact is that too many of them would not be qualified by ability either.

More than 40 are playing here because they hold an EU passport or because of the Kolpak ruling governed by trade agreements. Five of the least prepossessing in these two categories are listed below, but there are easily another five where they came from. And another five after that. Somerset, for instance, have re-enlisted as a Kolpak registration one of their former overseas players, the 31-year-old fast bowler Nixon McLean from St Vincent, who played 19 Tests and 45 one-day internationals for West Indies. He is an incisive bowler and better than most other Kolpaks. But it is worth remembering that the Somerset chairman, Giles Clarke, a big noise in the ECB, said last year that the county "will never sign a Kolpak player". The new incentives may persuade him to stay true to that statement.

It was Clarke, as chairman of the ECB's marketing committee, who engineered the much-criticised TV rights deal which has netted the game £220m and begins next year. From 2006, of course, all international cricket will be on Sky, and thus available to subscribers only. This contract received much righteous flak at the time and has received a double whammy, two anti-essays, in the 2005 Wisden, which was published last week.

Clarke, not a man to stand on verbal ceremony, described the sentiment that Test cricket should be on terrestrial television (at a much reduced fee) as "emotive crap". He was more right than his detractors. With Channel 4 a reluctant suitor and the BBC making no overtures, the ECB simply needed Sky's money.

There has been a great deal of Uriah Heepish hand-wringing about the fact that so many youngsters will never stumble on a game of cricket because it is not on terrestrial - as football continues to be. Well, there has not been an England one-day international on terrestrial since 1999 - and it is the one-day game that is supposed to ensnare youngsters - and there has never been an England Test match abroad on terrestrial television.

Meanwhile, all hail the Championship. At least four clubs have a chance of winning, but Surrey ought to do so, probably before the Ashes series is complete.